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Are You and Your Partner Faking Intimacy?

There are 3 core elements of closeness, and having 2 out of 3 isn't enough.

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The idea that you can fake a sexual response is often parodied in film and TV. As I discussed in an earlier blog, there are 6 identifiable reasons for women to fake orgasm. But when they do, they put up an artificial barrier between themselves and their partners at precisely the moment they should be most emotionally open and authentic.

At a deeper emotional level, though, the faking of intimacy can be even more problematic for a relationship. People can love each other in all sorts of ways, from the truly companionate to the superficially infatuated. Intimacy, however, is something else.

From the perspective of Erik Erikson’s personality theory, intimacy is a developmental issue that must be confronted by young adults after they’ve established their sense of identity. True intimacy, in this sense, involves sharing much—but not all—of your identity with your partner. If you think of a Venn diagram, true intimacy would occur when there’s perhaps a 50% overlap between the two circles representing the identity of you and your partner.

A number of years ago, I conducted a study of identity and intimacy in married couples with my doctoral student Joyce Ebmeyer (Whitbourne & Ebmeyer, 1990). We developed a model based on Erikson’s theory in which we defined intimacy along the three “C” dimensions of communication, commitment, and closeness. If you are high on the communication dimension, you can talk openly and honestly with a partner. Being high on commitment means that you have made a long-term decision to stay with your partner. And high closeness involves feeling more comfortable with your partner than with anyone else.

Using these three dimensions, you can map the intimacy of any given couple. People high on communication and closeness, but not commitment, enjoy each other’s company but don’t feel that they want to (for the moment) decide whether to stick together. Being high on communication and commitment means that you’re in a long-term relationship and find it easy to talk to each other, but you don’t feel particularly close, even though you might have at one time. Finally, being high on closeness and commitment means that you feel that you and your partner are psychologically on the same page, want to stay together, but find it hard to talk to each other at more than a superficial level.

Within this framework, you can see how people may fake intimacy. In relationships characterized by high commitment but low closeness and communication, you have a couple that has decided to remain in a relationship, but it’s a hollow one. If communication is high but closeness is low in a committed relationship, the couple might spend a lot of time discussing such matters as who’s picking up the kids after work, what to have for dinner, where to go on vacation, and even when to schedule sex. But that lack of closeness leads such relationships to be characterized as what we call “pseudo-intimate.”

Things get very complicated when you try to characterize a relationship, even within these three dimensions. It gets even more complex when you build into the equation the differing intimacy levels of each partner. One might be high on communication but not the other. Now you are dealing with highs and lows on three dimensions for two separate people.

I think the most important finding in our study was the "he said-she said" nature of relationships. People like to see themselves in a positive light, which includes being a good partner. It compliments your identity to see yourself, and to be seen as, a good partner. But is this realistic? You may have one view, your partner another, and your therapist (or a researcher) yet a third. No one view is wholly correct. What’s fascinating is the way people try to present themselves, and how those views contrast with those of their partner.

So it is possible, in this model, to fake intimacy. If closeness is lacking in your relationship, all the talking and all the commitment in the world won’t make it a truly intimate bond. But if we can fake intimacy, the next question is: Why? Researchers studying the fear of intimacy believe that anxiety is, in part, the reason some people avoid closeness.

The other component to fear of intimacy is fear of the loss of the self in the relationship. Just as Erikson proposed, to be truly intimate, you need to feel secure in your own identity. This is what allows you to merge a portion of your identity into the bond with your partner. University of Porto (Portugal) psychologist Maria Pedro Sobal and collaborators divided fear of intimacy into two components—fear of the loss of the other (FLO) and fear of the loss of the self (FLS).

Using an online sample of 276 heterosexual couples (ages 18-55), of whom half were married, Sobal and her team examined the match between partners on FLS and FLO as a predictor of relationship satisfaction. According to the similarity theory of relationships, people should be most satisfied if their own fear of intimacy matches that of their partner. Although fear of intimacy should be negatively related to relationship satisfaction, if you and your partner prefer distance rather than closeness, then it should be the match that counts the most in predicting how satisfied you feel with each other.

As it turned out, the answer is that it depends who you ask: For men, but not women, fearing intimacy doesn’t have to doom relationship satisfaction. Men high in FLS had higher satisfaction levels if their partners also were high in FLS. Men higher in FLO were more satisfied if their partners were low in FLS.

By analyzing the data in terms of couples, not individuals, Sobal et al. were able to examine fear of intimacy as a two-way street. They discovered that, for men at least, faking intimacy (being in a committed relationship but not being close) worked best if their partners faked it as well.

Reaching a state of wanting to be with a partner but not wanting to be close to that partner may take time. Since this was not a follow-up study, the authors couldn’t study shifting patterns over time. In my interview study with Ebmeyer, we didn’t follow up with couples either, but our intense look within each couple allowed us to develop ideas about how these situations come about. It takes effort to work at the closeness within a relationship. If you don’t or can’t make the effort, it may be inevitable that intimacy increasingly becomes faked.

People may choose to fake intimacy, but the majority of data on couple satisfaction suggests that your long-term satisfaction requires closeness, authenticity, and a willingness to take risks with your partner. If you’ve lost those connections, finding them once again can be your path to fulfillment in your most important close relationship.

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Sobral, M. P., Teixeira, C. P., & Costa, M. E. (2015). Who can give me satisfaction? Partner matching in fear of intimacy and relationship satisfaction. The Family Journal, 23(3), 247-253. doi:10.1177/1066480715573709

Whitbourne, S.K. & Ebmeyer, J.B. (1990). Identity and intimacy in marriage: A study of couples. New York: Springer Verlag.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne 2015